Elizabeth Johnston ’11 receives prestigious Skadden Fellowship to practice law in the public interest

Jan 14, 2013

Elizabeth Johnston, Class of 2011, will be a Skadden Fellow with the National Women’s Law Center in Washington, D.C., starting in September 2013. Her work will focus on combatting abuses of pregnant workers and new mothers in industries that employ large numbers of low-wage women workers.

Sometimes described as a legal Peace Corps, the Skadden Fellowship program supports recent law school graduates who wish to devote their professional lives to providing legal services to the poor and disadvantaged. Fellows are paid by the Skadden Foundation to work at non-profit legal service organizations, and the Foundation also makes required payments on fellows’ student loans during their two-year term of service.

Johnston was chosen from a national candidate pool to be one of 29 Skadden Fellows who will start their service in 2013. “These fellowships are extremely competitive, and I was really excited to learn that Elizabeth had been selected as a 2013 Skadden Fellow,” said Terry Maroney, professor of law, who was a Skadden Fellow at the Urban Justice Center in New York from 1999 to 2001.

Johnston developed her interest in labor rights for women who are pregnant and/or have young children while serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Paraguay before law school. Her Peace Corps work involved health education, including basic hygiene, in rural communities. Johnston quickly realized that educating and empowering the women in a community was the surest way to achieve permanent improvements in personal hygiene and health habits. However, she recalls being “sad and a little surprised” that pregnancies were anxiety- inducing events for women in the communities she served. “Rather than celebrating, women who became pregnant worried about how they would care for and support their children during the period when the pregnancy made them unable to work and while they were caring for an infant,” she said.

After her second year of law school in summer 2010, Johnston worked at Ayuda, a D.C.-based nonprofit that provides a range of social and legal services to low-wage immigrants, where she discovered that pregnancies were also a major issue for women in low-wage jobs in the United States.  “For low-wage working women, getting pregnant often means losing a job or being forced to take unpaid leave they can’t afford,” she said. “In fact, the birth of a child is one of the most common entry points to poverty.” Most of the women she encountered were not only unaware of laws protecting the workplace rights of pregnant women and young mothers, but also lacked the ability to advocate for the fair enforcement of those laws.

“While there are strong workers’ rights campaigns in New York and Washington, D.C., these campaigns do not specifically address workers’ rights during the transition to parenthood,” Johnston said. “This focus is badly needed because, for many women, the ability to continue holding down a job is key to laying down a solid foundation for their families.”

During her two years as a Skadden Fellow at the National Women’s Law Center, Johnson plans to partner with worker-led organizations in industries that employ large numbers of women in low-wage positions.  Through those partnerships, she plans to educate women and their employers regarding the workplace rights of women and advocate directly for women seeking to enforce those rights. “Pregnancy and new parenthood are the times when a low-income woman is most vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, both at home and at work,” Johnston said. “This problem will allow me to focus on work I’m passionate about—ensuring that low-wage women are treated fairly on the job, which in turn gives women the financial independence to care for themselves and their families.”

Johnston is currently clerking for Judge Anthony J. Trenga on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. She clerked for Senior Judge Martha Craig Daughtrey ’68 on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit during 2011-12. A native of Alexandria, Virginia, she earned her B.A. at the University of Virginia.

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